A Mormon confronts his myths
ReligionNewsBlog.com • Tuesday December 3, 2002
A Mormon anthropologist is facing excommunication after finding no genetic link between American Indians and the ancient Hebrews of Israel, questioning one of the central tenets of his church.
Book of Mormon,” he said.
In response, the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Washington state has convened a hearing for this Sunday “because you are reported to have been in apostasy,” as he wrote in a letter asking Mr. Murphy to recant.
Mr. Murphy, 35, who heads the anthropology department at Edmonds Community College in Lynnwood, Wash., has refused, and faces expulsion from the Church.
“I’m not totally surprised by the reaction,” he said. “In the mid-’90s there was an attempt to purge the Church of intellectuals. I’m fully aware that the Church has not always embraced its scholars.”
While the official Church spokesman in Salt Lake City will not comment on Mr. Murphy’s case, his poking around in the historicity of the Church’s founding documents is a long-running sore point for Mormons dating back to their religion’s earliest days.
The controversy began with Mormon founder Joseph Smith, who, under direction from the angel Moroni, unearthed golden tablets in the 1820s written in an ancient Egyptian text that revealed American Indians were the descendants of ancient Hebrews who had fled to the New World in 600 BC and that Jesus Christ had ministered to them after his death in Jerusalem.
The Book of Mormon details elaborate cities and societies across the Americas built by those settlers.
The problem is that no archeological evidence has been found to support the idea.
In the early years of the last century, Mormon explorers wandered Mayan ruins of Central America hoping to find some confirmation for the Book of Mormon.
The most famous, Thomas Stewart Ferguson, spent 25 years in the jungles of Central America before concluding, “You can’t set Book of Mormon geography down anywhere because it is fictional and will never meet the requirements of dirt-archeology.”
The Church has tried to meet such criticism by amending some teachings, now holding that perhaps not all Indians descend from Biblical peoples and amending Smith’s geography. The orthodox view is strongly defended by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies at Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City, which sponsors research validating the historicity of Smith’s translation.
“Most Latter-day Saints may say that the Bering Strait migration is true for some folks,” said John P. Livingstone, associate professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University. “I don’t think that is theologically worrying.”
Mr. Livingstone explained away Mr. Murphy’s survey of genetic research by saying that God may have changed Indian DNA “to create different languages,” adding, “The Church of Latter-day Saints and science have gotten along well.”
But for people such as Mr. Murphy, science and faith are at odds and attempts to gloss over historical problems create a crisis of faith.
The book for which Mr. Murphy wrote his paper, American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon, attempts to deal with that disconnect between religion and science.
“Mormon students are confronting this stuff every day and they have no support network. Mormon students capable of thinking critically are finding themselves in turmoil,” Mr. Murphy said, comparing their struggle to that of fundamentalist Christian creationists forced to re-examine or defend their beliefs when taught biology and science based on evolution.
Using some of the same techniques pioneered by the Jesus Seminar, a group of liberal theologians who hunt for the historical Jesus discounting everything from the virgin birth to the resurrection as fiction, the Mormon scholars have come to similar conclusions, finding the Book of Mormon is likely a literary construct of Joseph Smith, but one with spiritual weight.
“To acknowledge the obvious fictional quality of the Book of Mormon is not to detract from the beauty and brilliance of the sermons, visions and other imagery,” reads the introduction to American Apocrypha.
For Mormons such as Mr. Murphy, denying the literal truth of the Book of Mormon while treating it as useful mythology in much the same way most Christians treat the creation story in Genesis is the only way to hang on to their faith.
“My aspiration is to create a space within Mormonism for the discussion of the Book of Mormon as fiction but still as scripture,” he said.
But the Mormon Church is unlikely to see it that way during Sunday’s disciplinary hearing, and Mr. Murphy fully expects to be drummed out of the Church.
“I’m a Mormon culturally whether they like it or not,” he said. “I will continue to write and publish as a member of the Mormon intellectual community…. This issue is not going to go away.”
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